For many adults, picture books were among some of the earliest influential forms of visual learning as children. While pictorial storytelling dates back to the cave paintings of Prehistoric art, the first picture book—a narrative framework that uses sequential imagery rather than text to convey a story—dates back a short 130 years ago to artist Randolph Caldecott. Caldecott, an impressive illustrator of the time, began using imagery as the main component of his storytelling, rather than as a mere decorative addition to accompany the text. With the technological advancements in printing that followed, attitudes toward childhood evolved, and a group of pivotal illustrators emerged. This contributed to the proliferation of illustrated children’s books, and visual storytelling began to take shape throughout the 20th century.
Iconic characters like Winnie the Pooh, the Very Hungry Caterpillar, Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web, and Curious George cemented themselves in our hearts in large part due to the illustrations that brought them to life. Scholars, educators, and parents alike saw the potential of illustrated books as a vehicle that heralded children’s imaginations. Today, it is the authors of these iconic tales that consumers and collectors recall most vividly, but do you also know the names of the children’s book illustrators who played an equal role in imagining the likeness of the most beloved characters of children’s literature? Below, we explore eight of our favorite children’s book illustrators who brought these loveable stories to life.
1. Quentin Blake (1932–present)
Quentin Blake is one of the best illustrators to emerge in Britain’s literary scene, contributing his art to over 250 books throughout his career. Much of his fame stems from his quirky collaboration with writer Roald Dahl. Blake began his career at Punch Magazine where at 16, he became the youngest-ever contributor to the publication. It was there that he established his signature sketch-like style of drawing.
He began collaborating with Dahl in the mid-1900s, where they went on to produce some of the most notable literary classics such as James and the Giant Peach (1961), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1964), The BFG (1982), Matilda (1988), and many others. He made it his mission to enliven the text without overpowering Dahl’s words. Blake was named England’s first-ever Children’s Laureate in 1999, and continues to produce new, compelling work to this day.
2. Virginia Lee Burton (1909–1968)
Virginia Lee Burton was a successful artist and illustrator who contributed to powerful children’s classics focused on how to cope with societal changes in response to technological advances. Her most notable book, The Little House (1942), tells a poignant story of a country cottage that becomes engulfed by the city that develops around it, winning the Caldecott Medal in 1943.
Burton was also an established dancer and designer who founded the Folly Cove Designers, a collective that formed from casual art lessons she offered to neighbors.
3. Eric Carle (1929–present)
The fascinating upbringing of American writer, designer, and illustrator Eric Carle shaped many of his later artistic styles. When he was six, he moved to Stuttgart, Germany under the Nazi regime, which only allowed for realistic and didactic art. His art teacher, however, showed him Cubist, Surrealist, and Impressionist art, which later influenced his 2011 picture book about the progressive power of art, The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse.
Upon returning to the United States, Carle designed an advertisement that attracted the likes of writer Bill Martin Jr. He commissioned the designer to illustrate his 1967 classic, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? From then on, Carle began writing and illustrating his own children’s books, including his most famous, The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969). Each example from Carle’s body of work showcases his signature style of collaged, hand-painted papers that were used to create his iconic, colorful images.
4. Barbara Cooney (1917–2000)
Barbara Cooney was a celebrated picture book artist who illustrated over 100 books throughout her career. Born into a family of artists, Cooney started her training at the Art Students League of New York before writing and illustrating her first book, King of Wreck Island, which was published in 1941. She was also awarded two Caldecott Medals during the course of her career: the first for Chanticleer and the Fox (1959), her adaptation of a story from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales; the second for Ox-Cart Man (1980).
She is perhaps best known for some of her later works including Miss Rumphius (1982), Island Boy (1988), and Hattie and the Wild Waves (1990), each of which were largely autobiographical in nature.
5. Clement Hurd (1908–1988)
American artist Clement Hurd started his artistic career studying under Cubist painter Fernand Léger, whose abstract style, flattened shapes, and bold, primary colors greatly influenced Hurd’s early illustrations. These styles are seen in his most notable illustrations for literary works like Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. When Brown commissioned Hurd, she sent him a copy of Francisco de Goya’s Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga (1784–92) to gather inspiration from Goya’s iconic little boy in red.
Over the course of his career, Hurd illustrated over 100 picture books, many of which he produced in collaboration with his wife, writer Edith Thacher Hurd. Together, they were known as Clem and Posey and became one of the best-known teams within the field, producing favorites like Johnny Lion’s Book (1965) and Wilson’s World (1971).
6. Beatrix Potter (1866–1943)
Beatrix Potter grew up in a wealthy Victorian home in Britain where she had little interaction with her family, so she often turned to her pets for companionship. She would sketch them, including her two rabbits, named Peter Piper and Benjamin Bouncer. Potter also studied botanical illustration and became the first woman to have a scientific paper presented at the Linnean Society of London in 1897.
The concept for one of her earliest and most successful stories, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, emerged from a picture letter she originally sent to Noel, the son of her governess Annie Moore. Though her concept was rejected by several publishers, Potter printed 250 copies of the book herself, passing them along to friends and family. Its instant success caught the attention of British publisher Frederick Warne & Co., who had initially turned it down. The text was eventually published in 1902. Potter became the first writer to obtain a licensed patent for a literary character. The rest of her legendary tales like Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester followed shortly after.
7. Maurice Sendak (1928–2012)
Brooklyn-born Maurice Sendak is one of the most recognized and celebrated children’s book illustrators of all time. He was undoubtedly the earliest to make an impact on the artistic community and influenced many illustrators that followed His most popular book, Where the Wild Things Are, was published in 1963, remaining so popular in subsequent decades that it was adapted into film in 2009.
Sendak was hired to illustrate his first book, The Wonderful Farm by Marcel Ayme, in 1951. Over the course of the next six decades, he went on to illustrate more than 60 books. He also designed sets and costumes for operas and ballets, hoping to avoid limiting his artistic abilities to children’s literature solely.
8. Shel Silverstein (1930–1999)
As a poet, musician, author, and illustrator, Shel Silverstein was a creative of many talents — even winning both a Grammy and an Oscar during the course of his career. His most celebrated work, The Giving Tree (1964), chronicled a tree that progressively gives everything it can offer to a little boy, including shade, fruit, its branches, and finally, its trunk.
During the 1950s, Silverstein was a cartoonist for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, and for Playboy magazine. Later, he garnered acclaim for his collection of silly poems in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) and A Light in the Attic (1981), each of which offered equally eccentric illustrations.
What Classic Children’s Books Can Teach Us
Not only are children’s book illustrations impressive from an artistic standpoint, but they can also inspire youth and spark imagination. Though most of these books dream up an imaginative world, they still offer a view on life lessons and tales of morality taught in some of the most iconic children’s books still in circulation today.
Whether passed down from parent to child, studied as inspiration for design, or collected due to sentimental value, illustrated children’s books will continue to incite more than just mere entertainment. From their underlying societal lessons to the impressive artistic illustrations, they remain a pivotal part of the arts, education, and home. We continue to look to pioneers of this type of visual storytelling like Maurice Sendak to inspire the works of contemporary artists and beyond.